Saturday, April 6, 2013

Playtime - The World is Not as it Appears!

I attacked a post office this morning.

Before you call the FBI and I end up on a government watch list, I should explain. You see, it was really the Post Office, but I was actually attacking a portal rather than the building itself or, more specifically, the resonators controlling that portal. For those not in the know, this is part of Ingress, Google's augmented reality game (ARG). It's still technically in closed beta, but they've been trickling out invites to join at a pretty steady pace since late last year. And, while there are flaws, it's an intriguing concept for gaming, storytelling, and even marketing. I've faded into and out of and back into it again,  seduced by the ease of picking it up and the temptation to climb the ladder and simultaneously pushed away by the level of grinding and frustration. (Grinding is an expression mostly dealing with computer role-playing type games. It denotes the act of repeatedly fighting the same challenges to gain the experience and equipment needed to progress in the game. Ingress can feel very grind-y at times. More on that later).

The game starts with the premise that the secretive Niantic corporation has been performing experiments with a new form of matter/energy called "XM" or "exotic matter". There's a science-fictional back-story regarding XM, "portals" through which this energy flows, mysterious extra-dimensional entities called "Shapers" which can influence people's thoughts through the XM and a vast global conspiracy keeping everything quiet. As an ARG, the story and "game board" are not given as expositional flavor text but are woven through various websites and in-game discoveries. New features and rule-changes are introduced as short videos, website links, and audio recordings discovered at various in-game locations - the aforementioned portals. When you sign up, you're given a choice of joining the Resistance - dedicated to protecting humanity from the Shapers - and the Enlightened, who believe that the Shapers can offer us great gifts if we have the courage to embrace them.

The field of play  - links I placed from the NYPL
to Grand Central Station, NY
And what are these "portals"? They're locations and landmarks in the real world, which you need to approach by physically walking to them with a GPS-enabled Android phone (this is Google's project. Apple and Blackberry users need not apply!). Once you get within range (about 40 meters), you do a few things:
-"hack" the portal - shaping its XM into in-game items.
-Deploy a "resonator" on the portal. You receive resonators by hacking, and a cluster of 8 resonators fully powers a portal for your team.
- Link the portal to others. Link lines that make up triangles create control fields which impact your team's overall score.

What makes it challenging is that the other faction is competing for the same portals, to create the same fields. If you find a portal already claimed, you have to attack it with single-use bombs called "bursters". There's an experience bonus for creating links and fields, and half as much for destroying them. Earning experience allows you to use more powerful items and create longer links.

That's the game in a nutshell. What makes it work? There's a cooperative aspect which is quite appealing; there are various in-game limitations that encourage or even mandate group play. There also is a "level cap" at 8. This is a source of frustration for high-level players who can be lacking in goals, but it prevents the discrepancy between newer players starting out and those who've been around a while from getting too large. It seems possible to "catch up" no matter how late you joined and how sporadically you play.

It's also sometimes possible to see some really amazing feats. At one point a group of players in California accomplished this:

It must have involved not only several players, but someone would have had to physically travel to the portal at each corner of the triangle. And yes, that's nearly the whole state of California.

So what are the problems with the game?

First, while there is what appears to be an interesting story, the more one looks the thinner it appears; whatever narrative arcs there are move very slowly and the whole thing reminds me a bit about the old joke about writing a series rather than a novel; instead of a beginning a middle and an end there's a beginning and a middle and a middle and a middle and a middle. The story, in other words, can't end without ending the game. So, everything I talked about - building control fields, the global MU score, the battle between Resistance and Enlightened - those are all just window dressing. Some days the Resistance leads, some the enlightened leads, but in the end it's like a baseball game with infinite innings; being ahead today only means what you decide it means.

It also means that an epic feat like the giant California control field can be undone by one person attacking one spot, with no long-term impact on the game.

This brings the next interesting thing to me, and what's interesting as a writer and even a designer of technology; absent a real "winning condition" people tailor their gameplay to their own local goals. So, rather than build fields players will make "farms" of high level portals to collect items, and deliberately avoid connecting them into fields to make them less appealing targets for the opponents to attack. In-game chatter becomes more war-gamey than in-character; people follow the overall story to some extent or other, but mostly talk strategy and tactics.

There's also a fair bit of wrestling with ones GPS and, again, a fair bit of repetition. Still, there's just enough promised change - and in-game events - to keep things lively.

Where the war-gaming dominant community and game have really come together is for in-game special events; there'd be a post on social media somewhere about, say, a Niantic Corporation operative being spotted at a Duane Reade drugstore (all Duane Reades have portals in them; this is one of the most overt examples of using the game as a marketting tool), and the next week a challenge was announced - the team that controlled the most Duane Reade's at a certain time would win some advantage in-game. What followed was an extraordinarily coordinated plan of attack. I didn't get to participate (I'm a very casual player, with the job, kids, and family eating up the time that some people seem to have to wander around attacking portals), but the recap was pretty amazing; an under-manned Enlightented team managed to hold dozens of portals and handily win the event with the assistance of a player sitting at home monitoring the battle on a PC and directing traffic. It was a moment in which game play, social elements, and the creativity of the playing public combined to create something that otherwise couldn't exist. So what is the bigger lesson here? Technology, including the growing ubiquity of GPS enabled phones, can continue to give us be ways to pay, work, and tell stories that wouldn't have been available to us otherwise. That people will use what you give them in their own way, for their own ends.

 And, most importantly, the world isn't what it seems. The shapers are out there, waiting for us. Should we welcome them, or fight them?



  2. It wasn't just one player on the PC that directed traffic - it took many hours of preparation in the days previous by almost all the players involved. :)

  3. My apologies if I gave slightly short shrift to the hard work many in the NYC Enlightened community put into this battle. The larger point I meant to make is about gameplay, and the game in general; it says something positive about the game design that an outnumbered faction can win something like this, even in the short term.

    And Paramendra, that's an interesting point and one which I think echoes something I said: absent an "official" end to the game, we find our own victories where we can and choose what we wish to fight for.